The Professor’s party retake Goldcaster
As the Professor’s party reached the outskirts of the town they split into two groups. The plan was for Berengaria to approach down the main road into the Market Square and attract the guards attention at their headquarters in the Town Hall, whilst Barney and the others came at them, hopefully unseen, from a different direction.
Boswell couldn’t help feeling worried. In spite of the protective armour that Will Nudd and the others had built around the cab of Berengaria, there was still a lot of risk involved.
Were there really only the sixteen pirates left behind, eight in the town and eight still aboard the Black Leopard as the gulls had reported?
Would Barney’s men be able to get into the town without being seen?
Would the pirates ashore be too well armed for the Professor’s party, who had no guns, to have any chance of overpowering them even with a little magic – if it worked?
And would they be able to overcome them before those on board realised what was happening and came to their assistance?
But Boswell looked round at his companions in the cab of the traction engine and was cheered by the knowledge that he was in the best possible company.
Will Nudd was mighty of muscle, fierce of feature, and furious about his forge. Professor Paragon himself was apparently quietly confident, but nonetheless muttering in his beard and peering ahead through his telescope. And of course there was Umbrage, his eyes and hands everywhere controlling the great machine, with his pointy face full of fight. He was obviously eager to get to grips with the enemy, for as they entered the town he was singing to himself.
‘Out of the trees, down from the hill; we’re on the move, the men from the mill; and we’ll soon be at ’em, oh yes we will – and we’ll attack ’em and we’ll whack ’em while they’re yawning-o…’
‘Thank you Umbrage.’ said the Professor. ‘Admirable sentiments.’
Boswell smiled and tossed the shovel he had been using to stoke the boiler on to a sack in the corner of the cab.
‘Ouch!’ said the sack. Then Tom emerged from behind it.
‘You were supposed to go to the wood and join your parents.’ scolded Boswell.
‘Sorry sir.’ grinned Tom. ‘But I didn’t want to miss the fight, and I shan’t get in the way, and I’ll hide if I have to, and can I drive Berengaria now?’’
At first as Berengaria steamed and chugged into the town the streets seemed to be deserted. But then a solitary pirate, who had been hurt when a bell rolled over his foot at the forge, and was now posted as a lookout, limped from a shop doorway into the road and stared in amazement at the traction engine coming towards him.
He held up his hand as though ordering them to stop but of course they didn’t. He nearly got out of the way in time but wasn’t quite quick enough, particularly as Tom and Umbrage jerked the steering so that the edge of one of the huge rear wheels ran over the toes of his only good foot.
Tom was too short but the others popped their heads up over the sides of the cab and blew raspberries at him, leaving him hopping around the street in circles, first on one foot and then on the other, and shouting after them. ‘Ye swines, ye ! Get off the highway – you’re an effing menace! Have ye got an effing licence for that thing? Answer me, ye swines… Och, me footy… Och me other footy! Whateffer happened tae fighting fair?’
* * *
Elisabeth, with her invisible cloak, a comprehensive set of tools, and even more assorted signs, was at work in the lanes and byways towards, around, and about the Summerdale Towers area, continuing with her efforts to cruelly enrich Sir Jasper’s day.
Meanwhile Mr Bagley, by way of disguise, now had a drooping false moustache, a filthy floppy hat, and was wearing an ill fitting old green check suit much marked by its normal role as Mr Trundle’s working attire when milking and tending his cattle.
He was practising spitting, cursing, and generally behaving badly under Aunt Hetty’s tuition while they awaited the approach of the second band of pirates.
There was a cave set in a low cliff just where the road forked, Cuckoothwaite one way, Lower Rumble the other. Here Aunt Hetty, now clad totally in black with an old scarf tied round her head, had set up a stall just inside the entrance, above which hung a banner:
Bide a While Tea Rooms
Happy Hour by arrangement
Horace the donkey grazed quietly nearby, a steaming tea urn stood seductively at one side, trays of cakes and biscuits were temptingly laid out, and the smell of freshly baked bread rolls lay on the air.
As Rathbone’s pirates approached Aunt Hetty stepped into the road to greet them.
‘Welcome, welcome…’ she cackled. ‘My word, what a fine body of men.’
‘Who are you then?’ asked Rathbone, suspiciously.
‘They calls me the Black Hag of the Valley. Not nice, is it? Well, now you lot have come and taught ’em a lesson, haven’t you? Serve ’em right, says I. Least I can do is show my appreciation. Are you a bit peckish? Ready for a cuppa? I thought you might be. No need to pay me yet – I expect you’ll give me something later when you’ve finished your robbing. Form an orderly queue now, there’s good boys. My wicked, evil, and equally hated assistant will help serve you.’
Rathbone peered closely at Mr Bagley.
‘You look a bit like the one I trod on the other night.’
‘What, mate? Over Goldcaster way, mate?’ said Mr Bagley, as coarsely as he could. ‘That’ll be my cousin – Goody Goody Bagley, the Mayor, rot ‘im.’ He spat to one side for effect and was quite pleased with his increasing skill at salival projection. ‘Never done me no good turns. Cost me my job as gutter cleaner he did – just ‘cos I found a few fings and didn’t hand ‘em in. Well, fair enough, some fings weren’t actually in yer gutter – more inside yer open window and that, know what I mean? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink…. Still, family – could have got me off. Sugar with yer tea, mate? One lump or two mate? Six ? – right you are. NO! Don’t stand over there – cows went there, bit loose they were. Oh well, never mind, I expect it’ll brush off when it dries. Anyone for chocolate gateaux?
‘Got any shredded wheat? I ought to have more fibre in my diet, my mum says.’
‘Fibre, schmibre !’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘You’re not a nibbish are you? Get some hot sweet Jimson tea and a nice gooey cream cake down your gullet, lad. Now then, I expect you would like to know a more about what’s to be had around here? Gather round, and pay attention – I may ask questions later. Now, down this road is the Heritage Site. Very interesting, that is. There are large mounds of earth and hand crafts. They do demonstrations of grattock spinning, futtock nadgering, mud pie weaving, boredom by numbers. They’ve got a Slug-U-Like franchise, teach you all about woodlice, how to cook worms – most educational. No? Not to your taste?
Well, that only leaves Cuckoothwaite down that way. Basically it’s just a village full of scrunty beggars hovels. They had a plague of black shattered bowels down there recently – very contagious that is, carried in the air. Things fly up your nostrils, lurk about chewing on your innards, and then leave in a rush by an alternative route if you get my meaning? No? I think you’re wise – best give that a wide berth and head for the rich places on the road to Lower Rumble.’
‘Any problems likely down that way, Mother?’
‘Ah, isn’t that nice and polite? Well, you know what they say – every problem is really an opportunity, and there’s plenty of opportunities on the way to Lower Rumble, (some of them probably insoluble.) So good luck.. I expect that we will see you later, in fact I know we will. Best call in at the Lower Rumble School House when you get there. I’ll be waiting with some hot soup and friendly advice.’
* * *
Sir Jasper had come to a halt. Again.
All around the lush countryside shimmered in the autumn haze of a rather warm day. The ground hereabouts was rising, rolling meadowland with stream fringed fields below them, but above were bank upon bank of dense hedges, and copse beyond copse of woodland apparently to be negotiated before reaching any prospect of pillage worthy targets. The rutted lanes and wider rides clad the area like a demented spider’s web, but more often than not a glimpse of the tall towers of a building could be seen in the distance through the trees. The trouble was that it did not seem to be getting any closer.
This was largely due to Elisabeth’s way marking efforts. Half hidden by a hedge but wholly hidden by the cloak she was now crouched within fifteen feet of the pirate crew.
‘This map is useless !’ snarled Jasper. ‘It was perfectly accurate until we got into Summerdale. Now it bears no relation to the landscape at all. It had not been my intention to spend the rest of my natural life a-wandering around the empty realms of rough husbandry.’
‘ “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” ‘said Tantamount helpfully, still perched upon his shoulder.
‘No it festering isn’t! Now look, that must be Summerdale Towers – up there, through those trees. If we aim for that the gold mine the jewel cavern cannot be far away – heavens knows where Richpickings Farm got to.’
‘I got an idea, Captain.’
‘Well, when we turned left three turnings back and came to that cross roads and turned right and then turned left again up that hill and then left again we was further away from them towers, so if we turn right and then go backwards down the hill turning right instead of left and then right again we should be nearer them shouldn’t we?’
‘Answer him, Archibald, you speak Gibberish.’
‘Dunno. It’s all up to you Captain. I’m only an alto. No one wants to listen to an alto…’
‘And I think it’s all very odd – funny things going on, I reckon.’
‘Oh yes.’ said Tantamount. ‘ “Alright. Have it your way, you heard a seal bark.” ‘
‘ “The glitter, the tinsel, the heartbreak – that’s merchant banking for you…” ‘
‘Shut up Tantamount. (You’re losing it, aren’t you?) Now listen to me you left footed lot. I still have a remote hope that this day may not be solely given over to the botanical pleasures of rural perambulation… ‘
* * *
Berengaria rolled into the Market Square in Goldcaster where the Jolly Roger flag was now flying from the Town Hall. Two pirates were standing in the road with three more sitting at ease on the steps, waiting for their Quartermaster to come ashore and
oversee the work preparing the raft. They stared in amazement as the traction engine rumbled over the cobblestones towards them.
To the surprise of the Professor’s party they did not seem to realise that they were under any threat. Because of the armour they couldn’t see who was in the cab and they must have thought that this strange carriage had been captured by members of the raiding party, for as Berengaria approached the Town Hall the pirates strolled down the steps into the square, wide eyed with amazement. Two of the pirates had even left their muskets resting by the doors to the building.
As Umbrage brought the engine to a halt with squirts of steam hissing from the pistons, one of them came right up close to the cab.
‘What have we got here then, shipmates?’ he called out.
‘REVENGE!’ shouted Will Nudd as he threw open the cab door and banged the pirate on the head with Umbrage’s shovel.
‘That’ll teach you!’ shouted Tom.
The pirate slowly slumped to the ground and for a moment his mates stood still, shocked amazement on their faces as they realised the true situation.
‘Have at you sir!’ said Boswell, who had a catapult and let fly with a lump of coal at another villain near to the cab. The missile struck this pirate at short range right between the eyes and he too crumpled to the ground.
‘Two down – three to go!’ cried Professor Paragon, and the other pirates gave a roar of rage. The two who had left their guns by the Town Hall doors ran back for them, and the other one drew his pistol from his belt and fired at the cab.
Too late. The door had been slammed shut and the balls from both barrels of his pistol thudded harmlessly into the wooden armour.
‘Provoke them!’ hissed the Professor.
‘What?’ said Will Nudd.
‘Provoke them. Make them fire the other guns. Then Barney and the others can attack them before they have time to re-load…’
‘Ah. Right…’nodded Will, then shouted at the pirates; ‘Come on then, you swill bellies – let’s be having you!’
‘Lily livered louts!’ called Boswell.
‘Despicable scroats!’ taunted Will.
‘Degenerate rabble!’ thundered the Professor.
‘Codshead loobies!’ shrieked Umbrage.
‘Scurvy sneaksbies! Carrion eaters! Stoat breathed toad servers!…’
‘Slipshod caffards! Lobdoodles! Scrottle lashers! Haddock eyed hog bottoms!’
‘Bum faces!’ shouted Tom. ‘I bet you can’t even swim!’
The pirates were really quite upset.
The other two muskets were fired blindly at the cab and then they all beat uselessly at the armour with their cutlasses.
At that moment, just as the Professor had hoped, while these pirates were enraged and had not had time to re-load, into the Market Square came thundering Barney’s heavy cavalry and foot soldiers.
Easily outnumbering the pirates, they quickly overcame them and took away their weapons.
Berengaria’s crew all cheered, but then Tom called out from the cab – ‘Look out Barney! – Look out behind you!’
The pirate who had been hit on the head with the shovel had regained consciousness, had drawn an unfired pistol from his belt, and was now aiming it right at Barney’s heart.
It seemed as though time had almost stopped still. Horrified, they all saw the pirate’s evil leer, his finger tightening on the trigger, the hammer rising as the pistol was about to fire, the flint striking the steel, the sparks falling into the pan…
Then there was the gentle tinkling sound once again and a golden glow all around them as Professor Paragon rang Miss Minima.
There was the flash and the smoke from the pirate’s pistol… but it didn’t go “Bang!” – It went “Pop!”, the barrel drooped, and the pistol ball merely dropped out on to the cobblestones, where, to everyone’s amazement, it immediately grew tiny little legs and scuttled away down the gutter.
Aboard the Black Leopard Luther Speke was about to come ashore with Steelclaw Hawkins and Blackheart Luke. As yet they were unaware of the action fought in the Market Square. The warehouses, ships chandlers, inns, and other buildings along the quay obscured their view. Only the very top of the Town Hall roof with its flagpole was visible from the ship, and the Skull and Crossbones was still flying, for Professor Paragon rather hoped to add to his captives, and was wondering how long he would have to wait for more pirates to leave the ship. All was going remarkably well, and he felt that everything was running according to plan so far.
But high up in the hills to the south a bedraggled figure stumbled up towards the pass that led back to Summerdale. Nathan Boon had returned from seeking help earlier than expected. But alone…
Author of Dangerous Chimes, read more about Michael Macauley over here.